Daniel Vital

‘The more I know humans, the more I love animals’

Our dog Brioche and me, in Chicago, just arrived from Italy. 2009.
Our dog Brioche and me in Chicago, just arrived from Italy. 2009 / Personal photo library

One of my childhood memories about my grandparents’ house in Italy was a small plaque attached above the kitchen’s door: “The more I know humankind, the more I love animals.’ It’s a memory that has probably stuck with me because I’ve always associated my grandfather with the figure of a person skilled with people and refined in manners. His distancing from the human experience as a universal experience is something that probably didn’t make much sense to me at the time.

My grandfather was born in Corfu, Greece. He was part of the island’s Apulian Jewish community, the poorest compared to the other Italian (from Venice) and Romaniote (Greece) Jewish communities on the island. In all, about 6,000 Jews. It’s somewhat ironic that in such a small community, there were distinctions in identity and social class. Despite its small number, the Jewish community of Corfu was able to live in a bubble of serenity for centuries compared to the persecutions that other Jews endured in the rest of Europe. This oasis of tolerance occurred not out of love from the other islanders but as a result of the convenience of maintaining Corfu as a balanced reality among the various surrounding powers that desired it.

Throughout its history, Corfu has been coveted, conquered, and fortified by numerous powers, including Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, French, and British, and was even part of the (British) United States of the Ionian Islands – which granted relative autonomy to the islands – before becoming part of modern Greece in 1864. Its strategic importance has diminished with time, but its rich history remains a testament to its once pivotal role in the Mediterranean.

I can imagine my grandfather, who spoke Italian (and Venetian), Greek, French, Arabic, and Ladino, holding moderate conversations with those who carried different cultural baggage and sometimes headed in diametrically opposite directions. By profession, he was a merchant of clothing fabrics. Recognizing and delivering fabrics in certain quantities and quality surely required not just a sensitive touch and a good eye but also a good dose of diplomacy.

The relationship between the Jews and the other inhabitants of the island had already deteriorated by my grandfather’s time. A couple of decades before his birth, a sadly infamous incident of blood libel occurred in Corfu. Blood libel was an accusation that had been circulating in Europe for centuries – killing Christian children to use their blood for religious ritual purposes – and justified violence against Jews. In 1891, a Christian girl from the island disappeared, and the Jews were baselessly accused of having kidnapped and killed her; this led to a series of attacks and a subsequent deterioration in the relationships between the island’s inhabitants.

Yet, my family lived for centuries in Corfu and, even before that, in Puglia and Calabria. I have no doubt that it was with a heavy heart that my grandfather decided to leave the island in the 1920s. A choice that was revealed to be a hidden miracle as later historical events unfolded. The birth and growth of extreme nationalistic political sentiments, such as Italian fascism and German Nazism, had a devastating impact on the island’s inhabitants.

Particularly on the Jews who were deported, all of them, to the Auschwitz extermination camp as one of the Nazis’ final acts at almost the end of the war despite their awareness of their defeat in WWII.

Marble sign in memory of the Jews of Corfu. 2009 / Personal photo library.

In those years, my family moved to a foreign land, a newborn independent country: Egypt. Modern Egypt emerged in 1922 from the former Ottoman Empire’s ruins and the subsequent British Empire protectorate. Just a few years before my grandfather’s arrival, Muslims and Christian Copts were marching side by side, chanting the same chants and demanding the recognition of the national ambitions and independence of Egypt. It was a moment evoking freedom and justice; how couldn’t it be the perfect place for Jews to live peacefully? But Egypt was just at the beginning of its journey to understand itself as an independent modern country.

On March 15, 1922, Sultan Fuad became King Fuad I. Egypt had become an independent constitutional monarchy. The first elections were held on 12 January 1924, and Saad Zaghloul became the first elected head of government of independent Egypt. Despite the independence from the British Empire, the British interests in the region, particularly regarding the Suez Canal, were intense and still influenced the following years of political narratives.
In those years, though, Arabs and Jews coexisted peacefully. After all, historically, Jews and Muslims coexisted far more peacefully than Christians and Jews or Christians and Muslims. There is no doubt that the Jews suffered unbearable persecution and discrimination in history, but most of these events happened in Europe, not in the Ottoman Empire. On the contrary, in the Ottoman Empire, the Jews often found refuge from the violence in Europe or were naturally part of its population since the diaspora of 70 CE.
My grandfather married a Jewish woman named Judith, born from Moroccan and Turkish Jews, Zayegh and Ganon. With the rise of fascism in Italy and genocidal Nazi Germany, my Jewish grandparents found unplanned safety in Alexandria, Egypt. In 1938, Italy established the infamous Racial Laws that deprived the Jewish people in Italy of their individual rights.
During WWII, the Italian fascists occupied Corfu and gathered all the Jews and political enemies in a concentration camp on the island. The condition of Corfiote Jews deteriorated even more once fascism fell in Italy and the Nazis invaded the island. As mentioned above, they were all sent to die in Auschwitz just a couple of months before the war ended.
Grateful for the miracle that saved my family from the fascists and the Nazis, I am also sincerely grateful to Egypt for those times when my family found shelter. My father was born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1941. Egypt was also home to another 80,000 Egyptian Jews, most of them living in Cairo for centuries. The Jewish Egyptian community was one of the oldest Jewish communities of the diaspora.
The birth and growth of nationalist sentiments, still echoing the independent spirit of the French Revolution, sparked the claim for a state by many other populations across the former Ottoman territories; these populations were identifying themselves through ethnicity, religion, or, in the case of Jewish nationalism, through both. Jews are an ethnoreligious group; Jews have an ethnicity, the Israelite ethnicity referring to the land of Judea and Samaria, and have a common religion, Judaism.
However, modern Egypt’s national journey did not end with its formal independence from the British Empire. As mentioned, tensions were still high as the British and French still had a strong interest in the Suez Canal. In 1952, the Egyptian King Farouk (King Fuad’s son) was removed in a coup d’état, and the revolutionary government adopted an extreme nationalist agenda. In June 1956, Gamal Abdel Nasser became the second president of Egypt. He nationalized the Suez Canal, excluding from its profits the French and the British, the historic builders, and investors of the canal. This was seen as a hostile act and led to a war with Britain, France, and Israel, who attempted to regain control over the canal.
Following the war, Gamal Abdel Nasser enacted a set of harsh regulations abolishing civil liberties and implementing targeted policies, allowing the state to stage mass arrests and strip away Egyptian citizenship from any group it desired. Jewish people, all of them, were targeted as “Zionist collaborators,” arrested, and expelled. A collective punishment by another extreme nationalist movement that became violent in the pursuit of its ideal of “homogenization” of its population. There was no mercy in expelling families that did not comply with that idea of “conformity.” Some Egyptian Jews were arrested and deported even before the coup d’etat. The realization of the Jewish national ambitions (the birth of Israel) on a land that was part of the former Ottoman Empire also sparked a series of unprecedented attacks and discrimination towards the Jews. It is estimated that almost 850,000 Jews were expelled or forced to leave their homes from Morocco to Iraq (and from Iran in ’79) after the creation of the State of Israel.
My dad, at 16 years of age, was expelled in 1957 from his native town, Alexandria, because he was Jewish. He was considered a threat and not a part of Egyptian society. Together with him, all his family, his cousins, and every Egyptian Jew, no matter if a recent immigrant or part of the Egyptian society for centuries, had to leave. Some left voluntarily after the creation of the State of Israel, but many more were forced to leave.
At that point, my grandfather and my family became refugees in France. Waiting for Canadian visas was a prolonged process and took years; while staying in France, fate gave my grandfather a job opportunity to care for his family. A new republic of hope and freedom awaited him: former Mussolini’s Italy, the newly born Italian Republic, a land of post-war reconstruction, and the Christian Democracy political party.

My mother and father met in Rome, and Milan is where I was born. My mother converted to Judaism in the ’60s (in Italy, Judaism has historically been Orthodox, despite varying levels of observance by its community) and was the engine behind my Jewish religious education. My holidays were quite interesting, including the related meals. I often found Greek, Egyptian, Moroccan, Turkish, and Italian dishes on the table, each referring to a specific aunt or time, as if the ingredients and the process of preparing those recipes were keeping a connection with a past land or people.

Welcome to Texas sign at the state border. / Shutterstock Library by

When I was five, my family moved to the USA for four years. Houston, Texas, and Brooklyn, NY, to be precise. It was the seventies, and I guess the radical change in scenarios, sounds, and scents helped keep my childhood memories alive. I can vividly recall sitting in the back of my father’s car while he was listening to his eight-track music cassette. Nothing unusual, just an Egyptian-Italian family listening to Swedish Abba driving through Texas.

Our norm was to live loving others, and life will love you back. Keep it simple. If possible. In Brooklyn, when I was attending third grade in a public school, a reporter from the New York Times came to photograph and interview our class. An Italian classmate had just arrived from Italy, escaping the devastating Irpinia earthquake that left over 2,400 people dead and over 7,700 injured. I was there translating and helping him integrate into his new reality. What a great example of the multicultural power of the US! It was 1980.

However, once I returned to Italy and grew from childhood to adolescence, I began to look at the world differently. And as a matter of fact, I was experiencing a completely different world. Growing up in the US for four years, singing a national anthem with my hand on my heart and promises of a land of freedom and justice did not have much to do with my Italian life. After a couple of years attending an international school, I joined a Jewish school. And as particular as that may sound, it was really an eye-opener to the diversity that reigns in the Jewish world.

I grew up with friends whose families had to escape from Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia, and Turkey. I never heard my friends or their families talking about revenge or return. Living in the moment, with great food and hearts towards Jerusalem, was the spirit as it has always been for the Jews in the diaspora. In that context, I also made Italian and northern European Jewish friends. All with a family story that resembles a miracle that saved them from the Nazi fury.

My decision as an adult to move back to the USA to build my family was driven by multiple factors. Nevertheless, I feel as if something stuck with me from my American childhood experience that subtly guided my choices. I guess the promise – fulfilled or not – of a just and balanced society was audacious and bold, unlike any other. I felt I wanted to be part of that audacity. I wanted to defy that status quo of passively accepting injustice as inevitable as if there was a script written on top of our heads that was dooming our human experience into a constant conflict.

I look back at my memories and see that plaque above the kitchen door: “The more I know humankind, the more I love animals.” I understand it much better today. As a simple plaque on the wall, sometimes we need to reject the horrors that humanity can produce. And, in the realization of that thought, the instant awareness that it is just an illusion not to be part of that same human experience that gathers us all. I am grateful to my family, who have always been able to transform pain into love for their children and necessity into opportunity. I am grateful I was taught to be aware of the world’s ugliness, but to focus on and nurture its beauty.

About the Author
Daniel is an Italian-American Jewish filmmaker and writer who immigrated to the US in 2009. His mom, born in Ferrara, Italy, converted from Catholicism to Judaism in the 60s and married an Egyptian Jewish immigrant born to Corfiot and Moroccan parents. As a child, he lived in the US for four years and then moved back to Italy at age nine. In Milan, he grew up in a small Jewish setting that was predominantly Persian and Lebanese but also Italian, North African, Turkish, and Eastern European. With two Jewish grandparents and two Catholic grandparents, Daniel was raised with unconditional love no matter the religious identity. He earned a BA in advertising and worked as a film editor for multiple purposes, from TV Shows to documentaries, music videos, commercials, and corporate films. He evolved as a director while working on video and event productions across Europe as well as filming documentary footage in Tibet. After moving back to the US with his wife in 2009, he went through health challenges and a long immigration process. From the time he arrived in the US, he endured years of unemployment to to VISA restrictions, suffered from heart failure, and battled cancer at the bone marrow while being a stay-at-home dad to his newborn daughter. Such experiences shaped his approach to his artistic self in new ways that today come to life through his work. In 2016, as soon as his health challenges were over, he wrote and directed the short film Thank You Rebbe. In 2017 he received his green card and returned to collaborating and volunteering with film projects. Soon, he was helping nonprofits meet their filmmaking needs, and in 2018 accepted a full-time position as a video director at the Jewish United Fund of Chicago. The first project he wrote and produced was a video raising awareness about antisemitism in the US. In 2020, this video received a Silver Telly Award and a Midwest EMMY nomination. In 2021, his short film Thank You Rebbe won the Best Jewish Film Award at the Cannes World Film Festival - Remember The Future competition. Today he is producing his first feature documentary about US literacy and is earning his MA in Jewish Studies at the Spertus Institute.
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